Authenticity or Bust
From the First Great Awakening of the 1740s that energized the North American colonists and eventually led to the American Revolution to the Transcendentalists to the Beats, Hippies, and What-Have-Yous, a frequent cry of Americans has been “authenticity.” Americans want it to be real; genuine; visceral; heartfelt; roughhewn . . . something like that.
Authenticity, I take it, has something to do with being yourself. Or finding yourself. Or getting out of your head and into your heart. Something like that.
In the US, finding one’s authentic self has often involved hitting the open road and going West. Or heading to the big city. Sometimes it’s the distance from the pew to the alter in a holy roller church. Or to the free air of an ashram after escape from the stale breath of a parish church.
It often involves both geographic space and psychic distance–the distance from of a Midwestern farm to Gay Paree or Hometown, USA to Greenwich Village or North Beach.
Whatever else it might be, it appears that the authentic self is open to new experience and fresh possibility. Open to taking advantage of options. And changing fundamental beliefs.
(It is also a marketing opportunity. The authentic individual often needs a particular look and particular accoutrements.)
Self Like a Sieve
I grew up in a farming community near the Ohio River. My parents rode farm wagons pulled by horses into the nearest town when they were kids. For those children of the farm and the Depression, the speed and power of a 185 horse power V8 Chevrolet engine on a paved road spoke to them of possibility and adventure.
My parents transformed themselves from farmers to factory workers. The sort of folks the Beats, also of their generation, found square. Authenticity, it appears, comes in many packages.
My farmer parents were what philosopher Charles Taylor termed “porous selves.” They lived fully aware of the difficulty and dangers of survival. This reinforced their faith in the Christianity of the lower Ohio River Valley.
My father was born prematurely in a two-room sharecropper’s shack. He survived because August without air conditioning is a great incubator. His family nearly starved during the Depression. Next, he survived house-to-house and hand-to-hand combat in Europe during the Second World War. Then he worked as a boilermaker, sometimes suspended high over the water, working on ships; sometimes he worked several stories up, on smoke stacks.
My parents qualified as “porous selves,” as philosopher Charles Taylor put it–the sort of people for whom life itself is as authentic and real as anybody could want. They weren’t out looking for authenticity . . . Nor did they seek new religious thinking.
As Charles Taylor puts it, “The porous self is vulnerable: to spirits, demons, cosmic forces. And along with this go certain fears that can grip it in certain circumstances. The buffered self has been taken out of the world of this kind of fear.”
Psychologist Abraham Maslow had a similar idea, which he called a “hierarchy of needs.”
Boomers and the Big Bang of Authenticity
A very large shift in US consciousness occurred post-World War II. What became known as the Beat Generation served as catalyst. But it was more than one particular group of young people. I like Taylor’s distinction between porous and buffered because it helps grasp what happened.
Many Americans–like me–were able to move from a porous understanding to buffered understanding. Beat writers such as Jack Kerouac or Allan Ginsberg or Gregory Corso became models for our religious, spiritual, and artistic quests.
Remember what Charles Taylor said: “The buffered self has been taken out of the world . . . of fear.” Unlike my parents, I never faced starvation. Or war. Or educational deprivation. Or the feeling of being less-than because of my social location in US society.
For many like me, the Beats became models for this “buffered” sort of individualized “finding yourself.” They became the models for making choices.
Whose Yer Daddy?
Charles Taylor is trying with his distinction to explain why safety leads to secularity. Why it is that people who are not in constant want and fear choose to drop out of their childhood religions and question the norms they have been taught.
Immediately after the September 11th attacks, the churches and synagogues and mosques of the America were full. My supposition at the time was that the fear of the day would lead to a resurgence of piety of the sort that swept the nation during the Red Scare of the 1950s.
This did not happen.
As a matter of fact, the reverse has been true–attendance has dropped steadily ever since. It appears Americans felt “porous” for a short time but returned to “buffered” robustly. Why?
Perhaps it’s fairly easy to feel safe in the US of the 21st Century, despite constant low-level wars and rising debt and poverty. Perhaps a majority of Americans still feel that the likelihood of growing old is in our favor. Perhaps it’s always 9/11 now. But we have adjusted to that new normal.
After all, that “invisible hand” of Capitalism continues to pump out the calories and the iPhones.
So, we go on, wandering from one religion to another, one answer to another. We go on seeking authenticity. Whatever that means . . .